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Monday, October 20, 2014

Jacob White and Our Obsessions

Obsessions. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have them. Sometimes, they can even come through in our writing. Maybe we don't even realize when we do it. Obsessions aren't always bad, but they can still become so much a part of who we are that we don't even realize it. In Jacob White's stories, certain character types, themes, details, etc. pop up in more than one story. What are some examples of reoccurring things you found while reading? Do you think he is obsessive about these things, and if so, is it a bad thing? Maybe you don't think obsessive is the right word. Why do you think he chooses to repeat these ideas, instead of coming up with completely new ones? Why does he choose these specific things to repeat? Do you think he is aware of it? 

Don't just look at what he's writing about. Look at your own work. Push yourself to look for similarities in plot, character, meaning, etc. in the stories you've written. Are you able to find any? If so, are you surprised by what you found? What do  you think it means when writers tend to write about similar things? What does this say about them as a writer or just as a person in general? When a writer doesn't deal with their obsessions in their work, does that still make them a good writer? Are we meant to write about our obsessions? Discuss, too, how different White's stories still are even when they share some aspects. Think about how perhaps these particular obsessions or similarities may be what is linking all of the stories together as a collection. 

Note: Mention stories from the first half of the book, if they support this idea, but try to focus on the second half of the book. Besides this, feel free to choose which stories you mention. We are not forcing you to focus on any one in particular.

12 comments:

  1. I’ve noticed that Jacob White’s stories often have a central father/husband figure, even in some of his short shorts. Particularly, the father/husband is the main protagonist in “Out with Father,” “The Days Down Here,” “The Hour of Revision,” “Your Father Needs More Time,” “The Plantation,” and affects the protagonist in “Yardage.” Also, most of his pieces take place in a rural or suburban neighborhood, and there’s a pull for the characters to think back and cling to the past, particularly “how things were.” In the story “You Will Miss Me,” the two friends go on a vigilante quest to keep the developers out of their neighborhood, their “hick” culture. In “The Plantation,” after his wife and son abandoned him, the father/husband figures feels a calling back to his days living on a corn farm and turns his suburban yard into a field. It does get to be a little trying to always be reading about the same kind of character, but I don’t know Jacob White was wrong in writing with his strengths. I doubt that short story collections are meant to be read cover to cover in one sitting, but rather referenced and come back to after a bit of time to digest each story. I think he repeats these motifs for two reasons. One, because they’re familiar and he obviously has a lot to say about them. And two, because he’s good at it. I doubt that he’s not aware of his repetition, for even I, a writer not nearly as experienced, can recognize them.

    I do not know if I do repeat things in my own stories. Perhaps it is because I have not written enough to start repeating things, but I do consciously try to write about different things in new ways. I suppose I do this because I’m trying to find the things that I’m skilled at, the things that come naturally to me. Once I find them, be it a character, setting, or structure, I would hazard a guess that I’ll set up a base camp there and then occasionally venture into new territories. I don’t think obsession is the right word. People write to their strengths, not to their obsessions, because they like to be comfortable, to feel like they’re doing well. A truly talented or practiced writer can find a strength in any kind of character, plot, or setting and write to it. But the more we practice something, the better we become. It is almost as if we write not about our obsessions, but that the object or way we write becomes that obsession through repetition.

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  2. ¬¬Like many stories of the modern South, Jacob White writes about the characters’ disconnection from society and themselves. Multiple characters suffer from literal gaps in memory (Dayton in “Being Dead in South Carolina,” Corey in “Bethel,” Pete in “Wolf Among Wolves”). All characters are detached, lost within their world. Dawlie is disoriented in “San Sebastian,” so much so his wife must track him down. Hammond in “The Days Down Here” struggles to survive the grief of his wife Jean’s death. Both fathers in “Your Father Needs More Time” and “The Plantation” yearn for a relationship with their older sons. In White’s final story “You Will Miss Me,” he writes of the literal end of a hometown. Still he asserts, “Hicks ain’t dead yet.”

    White is clearly aware of his obsession (although, like Courtney, I do not believe that is the correct word) and uses this tick to his advantage. He builds upon each story, furthering this world of disconnection with every new character. This repetition of theme is both a strength and weakness. While the emphasis creates a cohesive, rich depth in his collection, the repetition becomes tedious after sustained reading.

    I am certainly guilty of repeating themes. After a disastrous try at pure fiction, I continue to find inspiration among past experiences, specifically the dynamics within my family. I draw heavily on my relationship with my sisters and parents in particular. Sometimes I worry that I’m only rewriting the same story, but then again, those repetitive stories are the only ones I consider to have any true merit. As I develop as a writer I hope to expand my horizons to include more outlandish or unfamiliar topics. For now, I’ll stick to what I know.

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  3. I don't know who I feel about calling it an obsession because that has like an inherent negative connotation and I don't think the fact that we forces on certain aspects of life a bad thing in writing per say. Maybe something like fixations will it means basically the same thing as obsession I feel like that negative air that obsession has is not as great for fixation.

    I think that one of Whites fixations in his stores would be complicated relationships between fathers and there sons. In 'The Days Down Here' there is a father and son and the same in 'The Hour of Revision' then again in 'Father by Father' then in your 'Your Father Needs More Time' and in 'Yardage' and 'The Plantation'. In some of them the actions of the father and son are made the focus or one of the focuses f the peace while in others they take a back seat and make more of an undertone in the peace. Regardless of this White tends to spend a lot of time in the relations between the father and son. In 'Father and Father' and 'Your Father Needs More Time' there is this fixation even evident in the title of the story. There is usually some growth or potion being made about the relationship between the two. Not that it is unusual to right about the change in a relationship but there is something about the way that Wight does it. It is a very indirect thing even when it is an important peace of the story. In 'Your Father Needs More Time' it dose not start with the implication of the son or even who the narrator really is but by the end we see all about the complications in their relationship. This indirect meaning is something I rather like about his writing about relationships in general. It flows easily one thing into another like in 'The days Down Here' it is more about what will happen after his wife is dead then what is going on currently with her. Then when she is gone it will be just him and his son.

    I don't know if he is aware of this trend in his writing to take extra interest in relationships with father and son. If he is and just goes with it because that is what he wants to write then I think it is working for him well. It is not the same story over and over their are many differences in the way he presents the relationship but a similar feeling of strangeness in the relationship despite what is going on around them. I don't even know if astringed is the right word for it but something closes to that. I think it works for his writing and there is something added to the story with the way he approaches the relationships.

    I think I have my own fixations in my writing. There is usually some kind of ending or death. The end of a relationship the end of a way of thinking or a final end death. I don't really know what this says about my writing or about me but I have noticed the trend.

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  4. I would certainly say that there are similarities between all of Jacob White's stories. They all share the same setting, that is to say the feeling of a small rural town as opposed to a city. Honestly, I could see all of these pieces taking place in the same town without too much trouble. There are also recurring traits between many of the characters, always the voice of an adult male. However, I wouldn't call them obsessions. Obsessions imply that the concept is constant pushing on White's work, that he can't help it. I think that it's a different case here. He is definitely writing a certain kind of story, but I feel that the repetition is part of his style in this particular book as opposed to a fault. I can see how he likes to take each group of people, often families, and show how they connect and how the interact. It's a trait that I find myself writing fairly often, and I find White to be very successful, certainly more so than me. However, I feel that he does come to the concept of obsession within the stories themselves. All of the characters have their own ticks and obsessions, though some are more obvious that others. "The Hour of Revision" stands out to me as one particular piece that seems entirely about obsession, with the narrator becoming transfixed with the concept of slang. I don't think that writers necessarily need to write about their obsessions, but I feel that many do any way. Writing is, in its basest form, committing ideas to paper and the hardest ideas to get out of ones head often find their way to paper repeatedly.

    I know that I have a tendency to repeat themes and ideas in my stories. Often when I'm trying to come up with a concept for another piece, I attach to one idea, be it a memory or a dream or simply a fragment of an overheard conversation. No matter how hard I try, I often find myself writing out my next story about that topic, letting whatever idea has captured me out. These fixations often lead to some of my best stories, but there are often similarities between all of them. I use a lot of concepts of family and home in my writing because I often have trouble separating my life completely from what I'm trying to write. I'm not writing nonfiction, but my history influences how I view events and pieces of me find their way into characters. But that's not a bad thing. Characters come across as real, place seem to stand out, when the writer can add bits of what is real to them for effect. White makes extremely thorough use of this technique and I can't name one narrator in his stories that doesn't come across as a very real and intriguing individual.

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  5. Okay, so basically my comment just got entirely erased after I finished it because I pressed the back arrow key and got kicked off the page so I'm going to try to sum this up in kind of a shorter way (sorry!).
    Overall, before I read this blog post I didn't really think of what White was doing as an obsession, and honestly I still don't think exactly like that, though I would say I'm more aware of it. As Jessie previously said, the word "obsession" comes with a very negative connotation, and I don't think it would be necessarily fair to call what he does an obsession when we and many other writer's do the same thing. I view it as going with what you know; some writers write about love, some about family, some about mental illness. In White's case, the focus seems to be on the idea of mislead people and how the actions of one character can impact an entire group of people.

    While I didn't get around to reading Wolf Among Wolves until this time, I really would like to mention it because I see that theme in here especially. In the course of one night, Pete's entire life is changed. Due to his sister's actions, his brother in law is dead and he ends up becoming Micah's primary caregiver, despite being once very distant from his sister's family. We see this also a lot in "The Days Down Here" as Ham's wife slowly dies of cancer over the course of a summer and they move to South Carolina, where they go on to live a life that feels very artificial as they attempt to pretend that everything is alright. It's all over in these pieces, and I feel that it's a very powerful sort of theme and it works well for White.

    I feel that another thing that White fixates on is voice and language in this story. As we talked about last time, it's very open and sticks close to the reader, and I saw this in a lot of different pieces this time around. I see it a lot in Hour Of Revision, Episode Before Putting On Pants, and a lot of others, but I'd say I saw it a lot with "The Days Down Here." The story itself bounces around quite a bit in time and often references that, starting at the first line "I begin then with a house." I feel that the way White makes you feel as though you yourself are being told the story is key to the way he writes for me, in the sense that I feel that I believe more of what he says sheerly because I feel like I am getting a very intimate view into the narrators experiences, although often some of the stories are extremely out there and unbelievable.

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  6. No one has yet mentioned the golf course. It figures so largely in this collection, this setting of land that was once wild, or at least less occupied, and that has now been shaped into that most controlled environment, the inhabited golfing community. This transformation is certainly one of Jacob’s obsessions—and he writes in a long line of American men who set fiction on the green: F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, John Updike, Richard Bausch, and Lee K. Abbott, to name a few. Golf is a sport over which people obsess. It seems genius to me that White places his obsessive male characters (especially “The Days Down Here” and “The Plantation”) in a setting where obsession takes center stage.

    What writer doesn’t write about his or her obsessions? An obsession, loosely defined, is an idea or thought that preoccupies someone. That intrudes upon his or her thoughts. That we return to in our fretful daydreams, or in our moments of great inspiration. Obsession is what we look to when we want to write a short story. Have you taken a look at my own collection, or any of Gary Fincke’s work, or at Tom Bailey's short fiction? What other collections of short stories have you read? (Not even to mention poetry, that even more obsessive genre.) The more you look at writing by a single writer, the more your eyes will notice the way writers proceed from their obsessions. Let us all cultivate our "gifts," these worrisome intrusive doubts and ideas that won't let us sleep at night.

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  7. Another obsession: I also wanted to mention that Buster Boyd Bridge actually exists, connecting the towns of Mecklenburg, NC and Lake Wylie, SC. A four-lane highway as of its reopening in 2001, there are 30,000 automobiles that cross it every day. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buster_Boyd_Bridge

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  8. I like Jessie’s idea of calling it a fixation rather than an obsession, as obsession does seem to have a negative connotation, even if its literal definition doesn’t denote that. I don’t think that repeating certain themes/motifs/ideas is necessarily a bad thing. It seems like it would be virtually impossible to write without returning to certain preoccupations. Never repeating any themes in one’s work would be completely impossible. In White’s stories, I noticed what many other people seemed to notice – the central father figure influencing the works and father/son relationships. As Jessie noted, simply reading the titles of some of the stories reveals this preoccupation – such as “My Father at the Mountainside,” “Out With Father,” and “Your Father Needs More Time.” Obviously, another fixation in the collection is the South, as reflected in the title and all of the stories. These similarities tie the stories together and make them feel like a cohesive unit. I think that writers’ fixations come from experiences in their own lives – where they lived as a child, what their familial life was like, etc. I know that my writing tends to revolve around mothers and daughters, unsurprising as my experience in life involves being a daughter, and my relationship with my mother is one of the most formative and important relationships in my life. I have found that I don’t often question other writers’ fixations, but I question my own all of the time. I struggle because I feel like I’m just writing the same story over and over again.

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  9. The back of “Being Dead in South Carolina” says that White’s stories are about “those who are adrift in a disconnected modern world.” That theme is definitely repeated in his stories – for example, “You Will Miss Me,” in which the lake is slowly being developed into a sort of modern vacation spot, and “The Plantation,” in which the main character lives in a modern retirement village that he partially helped create but feels drawn more toward the wilder gardens and corn rows of his youth. The characters and settings in each story are different, but the similar theme in each of them shows that the negative impacts of modernizing society and the environment are felt by all sorts of people. This is not a problem affecting just a few people. It affects all of us to some degree, even if we don’t live in this exact type of culture.
    This theme actually reminded me a lot of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s writings – she often explores this theme of people living in country settings who are unable to cope with a changing world as well.
    I’m not sure I would classify this as obsession – more like awareness of a problem. White is, after all, attempting to make a point in his stories about the changing times and how that affects people, and so he must be conscientious about this theme. And he must be aware of this – I’m guessing he picked which stories got put in this book and in what order, so he must be aware of the similar themes in each one.
    I know I do the same thing sometimes – two of the several stories I’ve written so far deal with parents worrying about their children when they are away from hope, and all of them deal with family in some way. I don’t think this is an obsession – rather, I am writing about something that I know and that is important to me.
    I think that that’s why writers tend to write about a similar theme over and over – they know about it, they care about it, or they are interested in it. Could that boarder on obsession? Possibly. Probably. But I think that it’s a good kind of obsession, because the writer is channeling that obsession in a productive way – one that will hopefully draw others’ attention to the problems/situations that the author sees.

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  10. I'm not sure if I would call Jacob White does in his stories an obsession, but if I do, then I honestly believe I have to call all writing that. Whether we're conscious of it or not, all of us, in some way, probably go back to a common theme, a character, a place, and rewrite it over and over again, even if it's not in the same way. It's what we know. It's what we think about. Writing is an exercise of getting thoughts onto a page, of saying what can't be said verbally, of expressing something that needs to be expressed, and in that case, why wouldn't it be a reflection of what preoccupies us and dominates our own minds? Even in pure fantasy, I don't think there's a way to escape this. We might not write what we know, but in some ways, we still write what we know. How else would we write? As much as writing is also an exercise in imagination, I'm not entirely sure I buy into the idea that it's possible for us to create something from nothing. Even the most fantastical tale came, originally, from an idea or thought grounded in reality.

    So if that's the case, then it's certainly not a bad thing that White keeps coming back to this father/son tale, to this rural country environment, to what he obviously knows and thinks about. Each story, at least to a certain point, is doing exactly what the name implies; it's telling a different story. Even if the themes are the same, even if some of the words are the same, even, there's something fresh there, something fundamentally different. I almost think writers come to the page with the intention of saying something specific, whether they know it or not, and writing is then a process to say that, to express what we at first believe to be impossible to express.

    I think White is more than aware that his stories share themes, that they fit together in some ways and mirror in others, and that's certainly not a bad thing. Every time he comes to the page, he's bringing something new to the themes, to the ideas that weigh on his mind. When read together, some of it can become jumbled, but some of them, undoubtedly, say what they're trying to say better. And isn't all writing a process?

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  11. I don't have a problem calling it an obsession. Even in the few short stories I've written I can see that I'm obsessed with certain ideas, aging and disability, water imagery, driving, all kinds of things. They come up again and again in my mind--it's not that I don't have the self-control not to use them, just that I find them fascinating so when I write about them, my writing interests me -> I can get multiple cool moments out of the same ideas. I think this is what Jacob White is doing--and it works really well in a collection. I think of Junot Diaz (I would definitely apply the word obsession to him!!) who uses the same characters and loose plot in tons of stories. I definitely think writers need to have obsessions so that they always have that place to come back to where there's material because of all the wondering thoughts and enthusiasm.
    Did anyone notice Jacob White's obsession with dogs? (I mean, same) "Bathel", "Your Father Needs More Time", "San Sebastian", "Yardage", "Maintenance" and "The Oldest City" all have dogs in them. I love obsession like this, not like "I always write about love" (definitely a valid obsession too) but the little details that could mean something to us in any kind of story. When you think "How can I show this?" and your obsessed writer brain says "bring in the dog!"
    Like we noticed in class and as Courtney mentioned, I really like the theme of memory loss. It takes me back to my days of critiquing teen stories online and seeing all these stories about amnesia by people who had no idea how it worked. I think it's one of our obsessions as a culture, and I'm excited to read a book like this by someone who can use this really scientifically fascinating and profound theme with the knowledge to back it up.

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  12. I’m also finding that the back of the book sums up Jacob White’s general fixations in that his characters often find themselves feeling disconnected from their worlds. We see disconnected fathers and sons in The Hour of Revision where the father fears growing disconnected from his son, “Halo, O’Doul’s, pizza with Banana peppers, and the weekend is gone before I can get a handle on him.” Hoping he’ll be able to give his son the same advice his father gave him. In Your Father Needs More Time, we see the same fixation on disconnected fatherhood in the ending scene where the father, living apart from his son, tries to build a relationship with him, despite being “a little out of the loop lately.” We see the same disconnected relationships in several stories throughout the collection. As Catherine mentions, the golf courses also reflect that feeling of disconnection; the physical land disconnected from its wild and untamed heritage, now trimmed and domesticated. An excellent metaphor I think for the characters and situations in this collection.
    When I see writers tending to focus on or fixate on certain types of stories, I feel that it says that these topics mean something to the writer. That through the writing of similar stories, the writer is trying to eke out meaning and understanding about the object of his or her fixation. I don’t think these ‘obsessions’ say anything negative about the person writing them, and they tend to make excellent points around which to assemble collections of stories.
    In my own writing, I don’t feel like I’ve written enough stories to really understand my own ‘fixations’ or ‘obsessions’ yet. Though I have noticed a trend in that I tend to write about characters who are trying to fit in, and simultaneously don’t question the society or situations they find themselves trying to fit in to. Maybe those types of characters are my own obsession.

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